Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Remembering JFK and what might have been

Far-right-hand aisle, toward the rear of the classroom. Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. It was about 2 p.m. I was a 14-year-old eighth-grader at St. Sebastian's in Akron, Ohio, when the loudspeaker crackled with the emotional voice of a normally stern principal, Sister Mary Peter. Over the next few moments, all of us sitting at our desks that day grew up just a little bit quicker.

President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Sister Mary Peter offered a short prayer, and we were dismissed. It was a long walk home. As I entered the house, there was my mother, a rock-ribbed straight-ticket-voting Republican sitting before the television — sobbing.

Depending on your age, there are times when you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on momentous occasions. Pearl Harbor. VE/VJ days. The death of Franklin Roosevelt. The first manned moon landing. Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Sept. 11, 2001.

These are the touchstones of our lives. This is American history. Our history.

Time and scholarship have not always been kind to the memory of JFK's 1,000 Days. His legislative accomplishments were at best modest. And then there are the numerous accounts of a reckless philanderer. All too true. All too sad.

But 50 years ago for an admittedly naive teenage boy, John Kennedy represented an ideal of a brighter limitless future, of a compassionate America, of a country willing to dream, to explore the heavens, to be a better people. And so the question lingers as steadily as Arlington's eternal flame — what might have been?

The people of this city, it would seem, felt that way, too. If you watch JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary, a poignant documentary written and produced by Lynn Marvin Dingfelder that aired recently on WUSF, you see a young outwardly robust president in one of his last public appearances before heading wheels up — like a presidential Icarus — into the fire of Dallas.

Here in Tampa, Kennedy found a brief respite from his political woes. The city was enthralled with the first visit of a sitting president. Here we still traverse the same byways, the same landmarks that Kennedy looked upon before his murder just four days later. His memory still lingers, the ghost of Kennedy Boulevard.

The older we who remember the tragedy of Camelot get, the more awkwardly conflicted we are to find the rightful place for JFK in our memories. After all, we know the history. We know about Marilyn. We know about the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, 20 days before Kennedy's death. We know that JFK was late to the civil rights table.

But we also know that to a 14-year-old, Kennedy represented the power of charisma, the sense of noblesse oblige with which he carried himself. We know about the Peace Corps. We forever remember John-John saluting his father's casket.

I know Kennedy was a terribly flawed man. I wish he had been a better president. I know this is wishful thinking, but I want to believe that had he lived he would have become better at both jobs.

Maybe his influence still over my generation comes down to this. In preparing this column I took another look at the video of venerable CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite choking up on air as he struggled to announce JFK's death.

Much to my surprise, I felt a chill once again come over me. And for a moment I was 14 again, wondering what might have been.

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